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Pathfinders Diary: Reflecting on Cambodia as we begin our work in Uganda

27 Sep

Pathfinders ProjectBy Conor Robinson, Pathfinders Project director

The Pathfinders arrived in Kasese, Uganda, after nearly 30 hours of travel from Cambodia. Plenty of time to reflect on the completion of one project even as we prepared for the next.

I am pleased to report that our time in Cambodia allowed us to accomplish what we set out to do. Through our service, we facilitated authentic interactions with the Cambodians that far surpassed what we would have been able to communicate by language alone. We gained an understanding of the problems Cambodians face, and the long-term projects a Humanist Service Corps could undertake to address them in partnership with Bridge of Life School. Humanists with entrepreneurial experience could have a significant impact on the business ventures that support Bridge of Life School’s educational programming, and humanists with education experience could shape the programming itself.

Humanist volunteers could also bolster Bridge of Life School’s clean water efforts. Nearly all rural Cambodians pollute their own water supply with their waste. Cambodians living on lakes or rivers use these waters as bathrooms and then fish or draw water from them. Cambodians living on dry land make toilet ditches that are just above the water table. If we return to Cambodia with the Humanist Service Corps, we could design and implement a multiyear education, outreach, and construction project around getting Cambodians to use composting toilets.

Pathfinders Project CambodiaOf course, there are many other areas where a Humanist Service Corps could focus its efforts. In the 28 years since the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, the Cambodian government has not only failed to build functioning civic structures, it has actively participated in the plundering and selling of Cambodian resources and land, all while pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money each year and even confiscating emergency food rations and selling those, too. Schooled in a culture of corruption and living on salaries too meager to survive, Cambodian schoolteachers demand daily bribes from their students in order to sit in class or have tests graded. Police officers will not investigate crimes unless the victims are able to pay. Even when convictions are made, perpetrators walk free after little to no jail time if they are able to sufficiently pad the judge’s pockets.

Thousands of years ago, the kings of Angkor built reservoirs and irrigation systems that allowed Cambodian farmers to harvest three or four rice crops per year. Now, Cambodia has almost no irrigated farmland and it is the sole Asian country that grows only one yearly rice crop. Through surviving writings, we know that in the year 245 Cambodians lived in one-room huts mounted on poles and cooked their meals over open fires under clay pots set atop three stones. Their bathrooms were open pits behind their homes. Not much has changed, and in many ways it has gotten worse.

Pathfinders Project CambodiaTwenty-five percent of Cambodians have hepatitis B or C. Sixty-three percent have tuberculosis. 10,000 people, mostly children, die of diarrhea-related diseases every year. Five women die of childbirth every day. The average Cambodian makes less than $600 per year. More than one-third of the population lives on less than $1 per day.  

Despite all of the above, Cambodians remain a remarkably warm and open people, and it was difficult to depart from the friends we made there. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my post about the “Loving Kindness” that Cambodia’s Buddhist monks recognized in our humanism, or Ben’s post about the bonds we created during our week in rural Kampong Thom. The pictures on the website say more about our connections with our students than any post could.

Even as we are in full teaching swing in Uganda, I encourage you once again to contribute to Bridge of Life School. The organization is doing fantastic work, and even though it is structured so that the revenue from its business ventures supports its educational programming, its reach is expanded by donations.

The Pathfinders also need your support, as does Kasese Humanist Primary School. A donation to Pathfinders Project while we are in Kasese has a direct impact on the lives of Ugandan students. As much good as KHPS is doing, and it really is a bastion of reason in a country of state-supported religious indoctrination, the school is severely limited by its resources. Donating to the Pathfinders will have an immediate impact at the school in the form of pens, pencils, exercise books, chalk, and sports equipment, all of which are sorely needed.

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